Four-year college degree not the only path to a good-paying job

February 5, 1997

ANN ARBOR—Contrary to popular belief, a bachelor’s degree is not always needed to land a well-paying job, according to a University of Michigan study.

“Most people believe that the only reliable path to good-paying work is by obtaining a four-year college degree or more,” says researcher Donald Grimes of the U-M Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations.

“This belief, however, contradicts reports from employers in almost every industry that they cannot fill good-paying jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree,” adds Grimes’ colleague Lou Glazer of Michigan Future Inc.

In their study of 158 occupations in the Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin), Grimes and Glazer found that among 54 job fields with median annual earnings of at least $33,000 (about 10 percent above the typical yearly income in the Great Lakes region), 23 were occupations that required no four-year college degree.

Such jobs included railroad and ship workers ($41,415), supervisors of precision production workers ($39,600), purchasing agents ($39,506), police officers ($38,301), electrical/electronic equipment repairers ($37,223), mail carriers ($35,369), tool and die makers ($34,587), plumbers technicians ($33,000).

The study shows that typical annual earnings for these jobs are comparable to the median incomes in such “bachelor’s degree-dominated” occupations as scientists, insurance agents, financial managers, computer programmers, registered nurses, accountants, counselors and teachers.

While employment prospects in each of the well-paying, “non-college” occupations is generally good, Grimes says that most require some form of special training.

“The common characteristic of the 23 ‘good-paying’ occupations that do not require a bachelor’s degree is the need for skills-training beyond high school,” he says. “These occupations require advanced skills learned on the job, in apprenticeship programs or at community colleges and other technical training schools.”

Grimes also says that younger workers (ages 20-34) are just as likely as older workers to be employed in well- paying occupations that do not require a four-year college degree. Further, more than a third of younger workers employed full-time in such “non-college” occupations as sales, precision production, transportation and materials moving, and technician jobs, earn more than $30,000 annually.

Other occupations that do not require a bachelor’s degree, but have “moderate” pay scales (annual median incomes between $27,000 and $33,000), include real estate sales, machinists, truck drivers, production coordinators, heating and air conditioning specialists, and stock and inventory clerks, the study found.